Nepal readies for major international arts festival 'Kathmandu Triennale'

The fest, which will host more than 100 artists, is scheduled for December 2020

Trinnale Sheelasha Rajbhandari (right) Hit Man Gurung

Be it rockets, helicopters, motorcycles and tractors woven into intricate patterns of traditional Mithila painting, or hair strands which float and swirl on the canvas as a sacred, mysterious life force; whether it is the reproduction of a stolen manuscript with a diagram of the ‘subtle body’ derived from Hindu Tantrism or a video story of how an old couple negotiate loneliness with wooden masks in their "ghost village" of Jumla in western Nepal, the showcase of indigenous art practices at the upcoming Kathmandu Triennale (KT) is set to be one of the most fascinating experiments in synergizing modernity with local cultural heritage.

Kathmandu Triennale, now in its second edition in this format, which was previously the Kathmandu International Arts Festival, is Nepal’s premier international platform for global contemporary art, and is presented across nine historically and culturally significant venues in three clusters—Patan, Kathmandu, and Boudha. The second edition is called Kathmandu Triennale 2077 and is slated to begin on December 4, 2020—which is the year 2077 in the indigenous Nepali calendar system—and will continue 9 January 9, 2021. The exhibition is planning to host over 100 artists from more than 40 countries. As a precursor to KT 2077, works of nine Nepali artists are currently on display at Para Site in a two-venue group show called 'Garden of Six Seasons' in Hong Kong.

Since March, art galleries have remained shut in India. Reading about an ongoing show in Hong Kong and an upcoming one in Nepal, one would feel like the pandemic exists in an alternate universe. How will this multi-disciplinary arts festival come to fruition this year? How difficult has it been in getting artists to commit to KT in December? What are the logistical worries? The co-curators of KT 2077, Hit Man Gurung and Sheelasha Rajbhandari, take us through what it is like organising a global arts festival in the midst of an unrelenting pandemic.

The earthquake of 2015 was one of the major triggers for conceiving KT. In 2017, art sought to proudly reclaim the city spaces devastated by this unprecedented natural disaster. What are some of the contemporary challenges KT plans to highlight in its second edition?

There are many challenges which we tend to perceive in isolation, while in reality they are interconnected with other seemingly segregated or subtle issues. There are also tendencies to perceive these challenges only within the political boundaries of the respected countries, which prevents us from engaging with broader collective movements. Focus will be given to ideas, movements that have been marginalised both in Nepal and globally. These will include discourses of decolonisation, migration and displacement, indigenous knowledge, queer rights, feminism, and alternative worldviews. Diverse languages of expressions will be celebrated and acknowledged, particularly those that have been suppressed because of the dominating and narrow patriarchal, West-centric, colonialist narratives in art and thought. The years of political tragedies and natural calamities have led to far-reaching cultural and socio-political consequences in Nepal and different geographies. Migration and displacement are particular results of such catastrophes. KT 2077 will explore these shared experiences of both trauma and resistance. An important section in KT will be dedicated to various artistic practices incorporated into physical, psychological and spiritual healing practices from centuries ago to present day. KT will also host a ‘garden show,’ with artists invited to plant, cultivate, and design an exhibition as a heterogenous park. This is to address and discuss the fact that humans have been creating artificial environments ever since they started making objects, either in the process of economically exploiting and dislocating nature or through the sophisticated manipulation of garden design.

Can you talk a little bit about the modernising of Mithila paintings underway in Nepal? How have the tools, motifs and patterns evolved in recent years?

In Mithila paintings and wall reliefs, artists have been depicting and archiving individual and communal experiences, festivals, animals and plants that surround them, along with religious presentations and illustrations of folklore. As Nepal is rapidly modernising, closely-knit communities are expanding into larger cities; the traditional houses made of mud and bamboo are turning into concrete. This has completely changed the tradition of wall relief murals and paintings. The painting tradition shifted to paper around 30 years ago. Over these years, the subject matter of the Mithila painting is also naturally evolving—artists have incorporated dynamics of the society and critique of the prevailing social structures. Mithila art is traditionally practiced by women and the knowledge of the art is passed down from grandmothers, mothers to daughters. And it is particularly inspiring to see women artists challenge traditional gender roles through their works in this way.

What has the response been like at Para Site? Especially at this time of the pandemic?

Hong Kong had previously experienced the SARS outbreak in 2003, so they were able to contain the COVID-19 more efficiently. As HK did not go through complete lockdown and things started to get comparatively normal, we were able to open the exhibition ‘Garden of Six Seasons’ in mid-May, though it was postponed by two months from its original date in March. However, there were barriers in the transportation of the artworks to HK from other parts of the world and unfortunately few of the planned works could not be transported in the end. The show is getting a good number of in-person visitors, and we are getting exciting responses from those that have heard about or seen the show online or offline. Keeping in mind the people who cannot visit the exhibition in person, there will also be more virtual tours of the exhibition in various formats, and focused sharing sessions by the artists.

What are some of the challenges of prepping up for a multi-disciplinary arts festival this year? How difficult has it been in getting artists to participate and commit to KT in December? What kind of logistical worries are you grappling with at this point?

KT will present works by 100+ artists and collaborators from over 40 different nations, and putting together an exhibition like this is always a challenge. Both of us are practicing artists based in Kathmandu. We are well prepared for practical issues such as the lack of proper infrastructure, specialists, and equipment to create large-scale events. We have always been exploring and working to develop a sustainable art environment in Nepal. The current global situation of the pandemic and extensive lockdown is of course the biggest challenge. In South Asia, the lockdown was implemented in the very early stage of the spread of infection. After around three months, the lockdown has been eased a bit but the infection rate is getting higher each day, so we cannot ignore the uncertainty. However, we should not forget that the situations we are facing are not entirely new, the pandemic has mostly intensified society’s already existing problems and pandemic should not be an excuse to stop addressing these issues. Because of the pandemic, we had to cancel many of our domestic and international research trips. As meeting in person is not possible, we had to shift to online platforms, but this has its own limitations. Nevertheless, we are in the process of finalising most of our artists. Our team is in close connection with the artists and different stakeholders, providing updates to our situation as it changes. It is a collective understanding and global effort. We are glad to have their commitment and support for the Triennale. We are looking into all the possibilities in designing a safe environment for the visitors and are still optimistic about the reach the Triennale will receive, in whichever form. We are closely following the guidelines of WHO, Nepal government and consulting local epidemiologists to ascertain best practice.

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